Friday, December 22, 2017

Knowing a Right Action

In “Normative Virtue Ethics,” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition. Edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Rosalind Hursthouse discusses whether a virtue ethics can provide a person with knowledge as to what is the right thing to do.

Recall, her thesis is similar to the one I defend. Hursthouse’s thesis is:

An action is right iff it is what a virtuous agent would characteristically (i.e. acting in character) do in the circumstances.

My thesis:

An act is right if and only if it is the act that a person having good desires and lacking bad desires would do in the circumstances.

In defending her thesis, Hursthouse brings up the suggestion that only the virtuous agent can know the right action.

But virtue ethics yields only the prescription "Do what the virtuous agent (the one who is honest, charitable, just, etc.) would do in these circumstances." And this gives me no guidance unless I am (and know I am) a virtuous agent myself (in which case I am hardly in need of it). If I am less than fully virtuous, I shall have no idea what a virtuous agent would do, and hence cannot apply the only prescription that virtue ethics has given me.

At least in the case of the thesis that I am defending, one can certainly know what counts as a right act without actually having the good motives (or lacking bad motives).

This can be demonstrated in two different ways.

An agent with a bad habit - smoking, drinking, gambling, dispositions to anger, a particularly strong introversion, or any of countless other dispositions, can well know that he or she would be better off without that disposition. She can quite easily determine how she would act if she did not have an addiction to tobacco or alcohol. Similarly, she can well see herself acting as a person without her temper or fear of speaking to others would act. There is nothing about failing to have a particular good motive, or having a bad motive, that prohibits an agent from imagining how one would act without it.

Furthermore, it is possible to demonstrate, at least theoretically, what counts as a good motive or a bad motive that does not at all depend on having such a motive.

I simply need to return to my tried and true example of a community of individuals who have an aversion to personal pain. In my standard example, the members of this community also have a capacity to cause others to have certain motives by the use of praise and condemnation. Each person in this community has a reason to promote in others an aversion to causing pain to others. In this example, they promote this aversion by praising those who choose options that reduce the chances of others suffering pain and condemning those who choose options that put others at risk of experiencing pain. These facts do not, in any way, require that the person looking at them - you, the reader, for example - have a particular attitude towards causing pain to others. That is irrelevant to the fact that people generally actually do have reasons to promote a universal aversion to causing pain to others.

If one can know that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an aversion to causing harm to others, and they know how such a person would behave, they should be able to identify, even if all they currently have is their own aversion to pain, those actions to praise or condemn. That is to say, they should be able to identify those actions that deserve, on this model, the name "morally right" and "morally wrong".

So, the objection that a person cannot know a right action unless one already has good motive and lacks bad motives is mistaken.

No comments: